Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Breeder's Christmas

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I’ve attended and assisted in a whelping, each time one of my girls is expecting I become just as anxious as I ever was. In truth I am more so; the more I have learned and seen over the years regarding what can go wrong (and very badly wrong) the more nervous I am for each impending birth.

The day before Christmas Eve my most recent litter arrived. It was textbook…at first. Her temperature dropped 36 hours ahead, giving me fair warning to stay close at hand. She began nesting and fretting, clinging and whining on cue. I spent the night on the floor with her when I knew it was probably too early and I should get my rest in a real bed. So far, so good, everything seemed normal. But on the morning of her due date, though she was sleeping and seemed peaceful and alert, my own inner barometer was dropping. Something seemed amiss, though nothing overt that I could point to. Cymri’s expression had shifted from that “something really strange is happening and I’m terrified” to “ahhhh, I get it. I am capable, I am Mama Dog” and she appeared confident and strong, waiting for the progression of events she somehow knew would come next. Still, I stewed. My turn to pace and fret.

I called the clinic, put them on notice that I had a girl in first stage labor and anticipated I may need assistance at some point. Then, I grabbed Christmas cards, my address book, and tried to settle in to wait. Obligingly, Cymri’s contractions started almost immediately. Strong but intermittent at first, then increasing in frequency and intensity. Each time she bore down I was sure this was it, but as the hours stretched into the afternoon and there appeared to be no progress, my concern escalated. I could palpate the puppy, face first as it should be, yet she didn’t seem able to bring it over the pelvic rim in spite of vigorous contractions. I administered sub-Q calcium, which bolstered her efforts tremendously and still no change in the pup’s position. Since I couldn’t quite hook a finger around the pup, I wrangled with external manipulations to aid her contractions. No go. By now it was mid-afternoon and the clinic would be closing earlier than usual for the holiday. I pulled out the mini-sonogram that I had received the previous Christmas and was relieved to find a normal heartbeat…at least one pup wasn’t stressed yet. Couldn’t find any other heartbeats.

I called the clinic again, helped Cymri into the back of my Pilot, and tore out for town. As is usual in a vet clinic the day before (or after) a holiday, it was packed. Cymri and I hung out; she hunkering to the ground to push and strain every few minutes, me cranky and pushy with the employees who were only trying to show concern. Get my dog on the surgery table! Tell those other people this is a flippin’ emergency and get the doc in here with Cymri where he’s really needed! I wanted to shout at them.

Finally he came to check her, did another ultrasound, and miraculously enough located two heartbeats. Around the same time I noticed movement, so I knew at least some pups were still alive. With “the pups aren’t stressed, I’ll be back” he left to go back to the other patients. My pacing and fretting began again in earnest. I’d seen this scenario before, and immediately had myself convinced we were headed for a repeat performance…in years past I’ve had both a cat (I used to breed Abyssinians) and a dog at a crucial point in labor when I knew veterinary intervention was needed; in two cases I was told all was well, only to end up back at the clinic again a few hours later with a mother in distress and the babies already dead….the poor mother still has to go through a Caesarian but has no babies to show for all that pain and effort. I wasn’t about to let that happen a third time.

Eventually, hours later (ok, maybe it was thirty minutes or so) he began prepping Cymri for the Caesarian and the staff stood around like cheerleaders. With a towel drapped from arm-to-arm I waited for the first newborn. One of the technicians is a breeder and normally the two of us make a great tag-team in resuscitating limp babies (anesthesia depresses the central nervous system). But she wasn’t working that day and I had two new receptionists to help me – the sole technician was assisting the surgery itself. The first pup came out limp and blue; before I’d even dried her the next pup was extracted and passed on to a receptionist. I traded the one I’d gotten partially cleaned for the new one. Neither looked viable to me.

I am not a calm or accepting midwife. I grabbed Dopram, placed drops under the tongues of each of them. I demonstrated how to hold them head down along the thigh and thump their ribs to stimulate drainage of any amniotic fluid they may have inhaled. I shook the one I held. I did mouth to muzzle. A third pup was handed off with the announcement that was the last of t hem, so my “team” and I concentrated on passing the three limp, soggy, blue babies back and forth while I tried every trick in my thirty years of experience. The first gasp brought smiles to my helpers. I was just incredulous; I had given them up for goners. Gradually, periodically, each would gasp and I began to hold some hope. The girls, sure that this meant all was well, began discussing names.

That was last week, and this week I have three fat, squirmy babies and a wonderful, attentive, devoted mama. Life is good.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fall is dog season; in my experience it's the only time of the year the dogs and I agree completely on the utter joy of being outdoors. Spring, for all its rejuvenating energy, is mud season in these parts and though I welcome its warmth and renewal, I dread the muck and mess the dogs drag in. Summer, my time of year, is when my darling canine partners seek out the nearest shade tree and look at me like the reptilian throw-back I may well be. And winter...the bitterness of these past few days, the killing, bone-cracking cold...every instinct my hardy ancestors passed along to me says "get thee inside near a fire!"

And indeed I would, for I respect my ancestors, those tough opportunists. But, the dogs have other ideas. My dogs have grown coats that render them impervious. Not only impervious, they are audaciously, recklessly celebratory of this season. There is no question they are happiest in winter. They grin. They frolic. They bound and roll and plow and spin and make noises I do not hear at any other time of the year. They are in their full glory in the snow.

Because of the dogs, I pry myself away from the radiant heater that keeps life in my bones this time of year. I put layers over layers, a vest over those layers, struggle to zipper a shell over the vest, cram my fists into my pockets and curse as I leave the relative comfort of my fifty degree house. The curses cease when the wind rips the very breath from my lungs. Fingers stiffen in the short distance from house to kennel so that putting a collar on a dog becomes a battle, particularly when I’m hampered by the cumbersome layers and the dog is jazzed for the walk it anticipates. Said dog then launches itself with rapturous abandon, yanking my frozen limbs nearly out of my boots. I beg, I plead, I implore them not to make me move so fast when my muscles are still in a state of shock; I whine, I whimper, my eyes actually tear (it’s that cold!). I act altogether unlike any kind of dog trainer should act…

But then, a mile or so down the cold dark road, a transition occurs. At first that’s because I become so numb all over that I no longer perceive discomfort. But another mile or so further and I am entranced by the sky. This time of year there is a lingering light that creates colors in the dusk and early evening that is unequaled at other times. The depth and range of blue just after sunset lifts the eyes and thus the mind; no longer is this an exercise in physical endurance, being out in this cold inspires awe, awakens wonder. As Parrish blue bleeds into azure and cobalt, and finally indigo becomes obsidian, the miles click by and the dog and I become extensions of one another. His body movements reveal the presence of creatures I would otherwise have no means of recognizing. The excitement with which he responds to a vole differs enormously from the out-of-his-mind scrambling that scent of a deer evokes. Coyotes bring the hackles up, bear bring him right alongside me, a deep rumble of fear in his chest. We plunge on in the darkness, senses zinging.

By the time we get home a couple of hours later, I am so invigorated that I want to take a couple more dogs out. Cold? Pshawww! I am Woman, descendant of cave woman…tamer of wolves, walker of dogs…a little cold is a tonic for my strong body!

Now, where’s my hot tea and radiant heater….???

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Blue Moon

Full moon this week enabled me to get the garbage hauled to the curb at 2:30 so I didn't have to rise at dawn to make the pickup. I heard, or think I heard, that this month we'll have a blue moon. Or maybe it's next month. I never hear more than bits and snatches of news lately. Should I say that only once-in-a-blue-moon do I hear a news story in its entirety.

Does anyone use phrases like that anymore? My family did...colorful folk sayings, full of arcane meanings that my kids can't relate to. Hell, my peers can't relate. Every so often one of grandma's sayings slips into my conversation and invariably elicits a quizzical raised eyebrow from whomever I'm addressing. Sometimes I know where it arose, but often when stopped like that I realize I don't know the origins.

We rarely question origins. We believe that we know what's what. We base our actions, and in fact our entire existence, on the blithe presumption that what we accept as truth in fact is. Mom said so. My best friend's cousin's co-worker saw it himself. The newspaper/radio/internet had an article. But do we know what's real? Do we even want to experience the full weight of living, or might that merely interfere with the existences we eke out in our little spheres of self-reinforcing conceits? Anyone or anything that is perceived as foreign to our contrived internal system will be shunned, ridiculed, or outright attacked in order to preserve the small space within which we feel safe but which in truth binds us. In effect we gouge out our own eyes, plug our ears, cut ourselves off from that which might inform us of the wonder that awaits the curious, and the growth and evolution that rewards the courageous.

Earlier this night, in that moon-lit darkness that casts shadows, I walked with a friend; well, with two friends. One human, one canine. We three are usually utterly alone on the backroads and pathways, other than being passed now and again by hurtling metal shapes bearing semi-torporific human passengers home to their chemically-laced food-substitutes and their digital entertainments. We three inhabit a world that few seem inclined to experience. Even in warmer months when the sun doesn't set by 5:00 we rarely pass walkers, and in the fall and winter when we step outside, we might as well be the only humans left on the planet. No one seems to know the sound of the horned owls but for their recordings on Discover Channel. But we walkers are serenaded by one in the oaks beside us, another in the hemlocks across the swamp. The coyotes voice their opinions on the quality of the cottontails in the rhododendrons beyond the rock ledge. Beavers slap their tails in startlement as we pass.

My point, if I originally had one, was that being outdoors, at night, is essential. Being soaked by rain is essential. Feeling my hair ruffled by cool winds, or welcoming the sun’s radiance on my skin is essential. These sensations are real. Life is lived just that simply. Every moment I am given the opportunity to be alive, if I will but grasp it. Other animals always do. I live with dogs, with horses, with cats and rabbits and roosters so that I may remember how that’s done, how I may escape the bondage created by my own capacity to live in the past or long for the future. I choose now. Again, and again.

Monday, November 30, 2009

character development

Hundreds of people have shared stories of their dogs with me over the years, and there are many whose previous dogs were obtained from shelters or found on the street. Often, these kind-hearted folk relate with conviction that their dog had been abused prior to coming to them. As evidence they point to the dogs' behaviors - aggressiveness towards children, avoidance of men or uniforms or brooms, refusal to come when the person calling is holding a leash...the list is endless. Yes, the behaviors are indicative of an emotional reaction, but can the cause be inferred? Is it realistic to assume that this dog, if adopted as a puppy and given a loving home from the start would *not* have developed antisocial behaviors? To believe that the dog is a blank slate, pure and perfect, awaiting the Hand of Man in either kindness or cruelty to instill its eventual personality is to ignore the inherent individuality of that being.

Dogs, like people, are born with innate tendencies towards weak wills or strong ones, low drive or high, curiosity or dullness, intelligence or stupidity, willingness or oppositionality...the interface of these traits with the experiences the dog has will create templates that the dog uses to deal with every subsequent patterns are established. A timid dog that is startled by a stranger's enthusiastic attention may shrink away from the next stranger. No harm was done to the dog in actuality, but within the confines of its own internal world the stranger was experienced as scary and potentially dangerous. That conviction, held as truth, is projected outward by the dog onto subsequent interactions, coloring its experience of even the gentlest touch. A dedicated owner may be able to restore confidence in the dog with time and attention and careful socialization, but if the dog were to end up in new hands, its wariness and overtly fearful manner would likely convince its new owners that it had suffered at the hand of its previous owners, when in fact its own innate character is simply being evinced.

Experience does play an enormous role in the final analysis, that's why I emphasize to my new puppy owners the necessity of controlling a puppy's experiences during the impressionable initial weeks and months. For one thing I'm not a big fan of dog parks, because owners generally are unable to honestly appraise their dog's character. When asked, invariably they assure you that their beloved Fido doesn't bite, isn't aggressive, or...oops, never did that before. Turn your unsuspecting young dog out for a run in a community dog park and if they should encounter the neighborhood Cujo they may have good reason forever afterwards to carry a chip on their shoulder with regard to other dogs. Similarly, though puppies need exposure to kids if they're to learn forbearance and reliability with children, subjecting them to the heavy-handed and insensitive behavior of just any ill-mannered child would be hugely counter-productive.

A pup needs to have happy interactions with a variety of situations, orchestrated by its owner and gauged to the pup's developmental level, if it is to grow up with a happy and confident manner. The underlying character of the dog will dictate the degree to which these efforts are successful, but the effort must be made if one wants a well-adjusted canine partner.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Anytime I have a litter coming, I begin the process of getting to know the folks who are waiting on puppies. Invariably there are several who make the statement to the effect that they want their pups as young as possible so they can begin "the bonding process." One can never know precisely what someone else means by that, but I tend to assume that what they really mean is they don't want to deprive themselves of puppy breath and lots of puddles.

Baby puppies, very young babies, don't bond in the same way that an older pup or adult does...they're a lot like baby humans who can be handed from one capable adult to another without much fuss. They're trusting. They haven't learned that there are things to be feared in the Big Bad Out There, and their worldview barely recognizes the distinction between self and other. Any female dog will do when a baby puppy is hungry, it's only when the non-mom unceremoniously snarls and snaps that baby comprehends the necessity of maintaining the distinction between mom and non-mom if he wishes to avoid injury.

When visitors come, they see the puppies tag after me everywhere and assume they're bonded to me...but they'll follow anybody. Sure, given a choice they'll follow me versus you because I'm the Food Bringer. Three times a day since their foggiest recollections, my scent, footsteps, and voice correlate with the magical appearance of lusciously tasty grub. They come running if I call them because they associate the particular way I say "here puppy, puppy!" with the gratification of warm, full bellies. But they'll follow you just as willingly once you replace me in that roll. The instincts of survival are so imperative they can't help but stick close to the one who provisions them with the necessities of life. They imprint, not bond. They are cute, sweet, funny, heart-warming little users! But are they bonded? Huh-uh. Not yet, not when they're utterly dependent. So, to say that a baby pup needs to be acquired early in order to "bond" to a human owner is misleading and perhaps a tad egoistic.

Give me a dog, a grown up dog that's got a heart and soul looking back at me when I make eye contact. One who has seen a few things, been around a bit, can think for itself and chooses to be my partner. I love meeting adult dogs; sometimes there's an instant liking, an attraction of chemistry not unlike the way interactions with certain total strangers can seem like becoming reacquainted with an old friend. Dogs are what they are, they don't hide behind facades, and they evaluate me even more thoroughly than I can possibly scrutinize them...because they cheat, they have built in chromatography! Their noses enable them to know my emotional state even if I don't; they know my health, my status, probably what I ate for dinner last night. I can exchange a bond of trust with a dog in an instant, and that dog will remember me even if I don't come 'round again for a year. Those bonds, the recognition of a kindred soul that is revealed when we are real and open to such exchanges, outlast the moment, and sustain us in the lonely interludes when it seems there is no one and no thing that we can count on.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Salon Talk

It's been a week since I made an entry, so don't let the length of this post daunt you...I'm just making up for lost time.

I stopped off for a haircut on my way home last night, and as usually happens in situations where some sort of conversation is appropriate, we chatted about pets. She has an Olde English Bulldogge and several cats, so it gives us some common ground. Around about the time she was scissoring my bangs, she picked up a thread from a previous conversation.

As it happens, she is a newlywed, and during previous haircuts I had learned that her dog Jazz was afraid of her new husband, John. From other things she had said, the impression I had was of a somewhat shy or timid dog. Last night she told me that they had figured out why Jazz kept her distance from the new Man of the House. Their theory was that Jazz felt guilty for misbehaving while home alone during the day, and so because the husband is the first one home in the evening, she avoids him out of a sense of guilt. “You can just see it in her face, she knows she’s done wrong,” my hairdresser said, adding “it’s like she knows she’s going to get into trouble but just can’t help herself.”

I asked more about the situation, because I’ve heard the same song umpteen versions over the years. The upshot of the story is that they expect Jazz to leave the cats’ food alone, to stay off the furniture and to basically lie around and touch nothing during the hours they’re both away at work. Upon returning home, John would find dog hair on the couch (was he absolutely sure it wasn’t cat hair?) and empty cat food dishes (and he’s absolutely sure the cats didn’t eat it all?) and would scold Jazz for being “bad.”

Little wonder Jazz didn’t offer an enthusiastic welcome for John!

That crouched posture, head held low, tail tucked, eyes rolling up in supplication is so often presumed to be guilt that owners find themselves saying “what did you do!?!” the instant they see the signs. A quick look around will reveal something…a loaf of bread knocked off the counter, a plant wilted in the middle of the room with the contents of its pot strewn about and ground into the carpet. In my hairdresser’s scenario, that would probably be sufficient evidence that Jazz “knew” she’d done wrong and anticipated punishment.

But wait. Take the last half of that sentence and play the tape backwards. A dog can certainly anticipate, as anyone who has ever walked a dog knows when you take the leash off the peg on the wall. So the hairdresser is partly right, Jazz no doubt does anticipate punishment. But how did that come to be? If you have ever come home, found something amiss, and punished the dog, then the next time something is amiss the dog will anticipate punishment. But does two and two equal four in a dog’s world? In other words does the dog’s anticipation of punishment imply that they also experience what we humans understand to be guilt as it derives from a sense of wrongdoing or responsibility? Or is this a more complex equation?

In my opinion, this is an example of conditioned response, a sort of inadvertent training. Think of the dog’s perspective. Sometime around 2:00 PM the dog got bored or hungry and chased the cat. The cat jumped on the counter, knocked the loaf of bread off, and in hot pursuit of the cat the dog stepped on the bread, ripping the bag open. After the Dog and cat tired of that game, they wandered back into the kitchen, discovered the bread, dragged the bag by one edge spilling the contents in Hansel & Gretel fashion from room to room, then partied their way back along the bread crumb trail. They had a grand afternoon!

Tired from the antics, Dog is dreaming happy dreams when it hears the familiar car engine sound, the footsteps of the beloved coming up the walk, and the click of the key in the door. Oh joy! Life is good again! Big bounding leap takes the dog to the door, where instead of a hug and reunion celebration, the dog gets a brusque shove-off because Owner, who flipped on a light and got a look at the place, is working up a good steam. Dog, still in greeting mode, is puzzled, then wary, then downright terrified as Owner’s mood dissolves into outright fury.

Maybe Dog is smacked. Maybe Owner shoves dog outdoors and banishes it. Some sort of negative experience is inflicted on Dog. Now, Dog’s bread bowl bash was hours earlier, and it doesn’t connect its actions with the Owner’s reaction. It does, however, see the bread and shredded wrapper strewn everywhere, because dogs notice *everything.* So, while it doesn’t associate its own actions with the human reaction, it *does* associate the mess with the pain of punishment. So, fast-forward to another time Dog knocks something over. It doesn’t feel guilty for doing so, but when that chain of events goes off again (car pulls in, owner walks to door, key opens lock, stuff is strewn about on the floor) then Dog, remembering last time and wanting to save his skin, goes into an all-out attempt to convince Owner that it shouldn’t be punished. That’s what the cringing, slinking, eye-rolling is about…it’s appeasement behavior meant to defuse the situation and avert the Wrath of God. Not guilt, fear.

What about times when Dog acts “guilty” but didn’t actually do anything? Those with multiple-dog households can identify with that concept from watching what happens when you’re angry with one dog. The others, instantly recognizing the body language, avert their eyes, crouch, slink, do their best to disappear into the carpet. They didn’t do a thing, they are simply responding to their instinctive desire to keep the Alpha off their back! Yet, looking at them, it’s the same performance John saw in Jazz and inferred guilt. So, what happened with John and Jazz? If you come home a time or two and find mess or destruction, you’re going to anticipate finding mess and destruction each time you come home. How do you feel as you drive home? Tense? Irritable? What does that do to your breathing? Your posture? If you walk in the door with the angry presumption that something is wrong, your dog will know it before you even get inside. Your entire body is like a radio transmitter, emitting vibes at a frequency your dog reads loud and clear.

I did it just now…I got up to go to the kitchen and the poodle hopped out of his bed to follow (it’s nearly dinner time; he’s hopeful). I stopped a few steps away from the kitchen door (I forget what I’m doing half the time, and have to stop and reconnoiter). The poodle froze in place, head hunkered, afraid to move. I was standing with my hands on my hips, as I often do when I first spot a little “present” that the poodle is inclined to leave for me on my favorite carpets. There was no “present” and the poodle hadn’t done anything…but he sure looked guilty!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Motivation - "carrots"

“Dumb dog!” Most dog owners, including myself, have said such things in exasperation. But when I’m not vexed by something my four-legged friends have done, I know the phrase isn’t fair – dogs’ inability to speak doesn’t reflect on their I.Q.
Sure, some dogs aren’t quite as quick or as willing to learn as others. And some make more effort to communicate than others. But what we call stupidity is usually just a symptom of lack of understanding or motivation. Why should your dog bother to comply with, or even try to understand, your commandst if you meet its every need or perceived wish just ‘cause that furry face is so darned cute? Honestly, would you get up and go to work every morning if your paycheck arrived no matter what?
How do you motivate a dog whose life is one of indulgence and ease? Your dog has a roof overhead, bed for lounging, food in the bowl, and treats on demand. Grocery store aisles and entire specialty stores offer treats, toys, premium foods and designer clothes to tempt doting owners precisely because humans naturally express their love by lavishing attention and gifts on the family pet. How can your Fido behave like Lassie or Eddie when he thinks his purpose in life is to be petted, played with, and loved?
Dog training is not about dominance or a battle of wills (although both come into play at times); it’s accomplished by establishing a common vocabulary, or currency if you will. That vocabulary has meaning or the currency has value only if you can get this across to your dog: I have what you want- your “paycheck”—and you can have it if you do what I ask of you. Pretty straightforward. The paycheck might be a food treat or a game of fetch, anything that your dog is ballistic about. If you’re serious about achieving results, restrict the dog’s treats or special toys to these training sessions.
Be clear in your own mind what you expect from the dog. Be specific, and be confident. Rather than “My dog is out of control” think “I want my dog to walk calmly on leash” or “my dog should sit to greet strangers.” Clarity of expectation will aid clarity of communication. Reinforcing the behavior – “paying” your dog -- will cement the cause and effect in your dog’s mind. Dog walks calmly, or sits patiently, dog gets treat or other reward. Good behavior is repeated because the dog wants the paycheck. Consistent application of this principle and association of a command word, with repetition produces a mannerly dog that responds promptly and consistently.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Let's *Really* Talk

Adesdum. If I said that in a crowd of people, some might recognize it as Latin for “come here” but most would pass by without a clue. If I were in Latvia and spoke in English, I wouldn’t expect many to understand my native tongue. But in either situation, if I were to make eye contact and motion towards myself with my arm, at least some people would comply by approaching me. The words themselves have no inherent meaning. Meaning is ascribed after contextual clues cement the connection between the sound (word) and the object or action.

The key to training our dogs is to help them make that connection by establishing two-way communication. I’m always confounded by how many people think dogs should understand us without having been taught the meaning of the words. Dogs are remarkable students – they notice everything. It’s astounding what they learn, as much in spite of us as because of us. If we say “sit… sit… SIT!” before wrestling the dog into some semblance of that position, the dog, understandably, thinks the procedure is to listen to “sit… sit… SIT!” just prior to being strangled and shoved. No fun for either of you. Why not teach it that a single word, “Sit,” means put your butt on the ground?

One of the biggest impediments to clear communication with our canine companions is anthropomorphism - the projection of human characteristics onto our dogs. Accept that this creature you love is not a fur-person. Dogs are wondrous, beguiling, bewildering Others whose companionship we often take for granted, but whose wolfish DNA co-evolved alongside us, enabling them to understand our gestures, facial expressions, moods, voice tone. They occupy a separate world, overlapping our own but with rules, motivations, and goals that differ from ours. Find what motivates your dog, and you hold the key to a dog that will do back-flips (literally) to please you.

Remarkable things can happen if an owner is equipped with some basic understanding. A handful of key concepts can improve any human/dog relationship with minimal effort; regardless of breed or age, most dogs can be obedient & trustworthy canine citizens.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Know what you mean, say what you mean, mean what you say

“It’s me, I know it is.” I hear this lament frequently during private lessons, and I always smile and nod. Yes, problems with dog training invariably result from owner miscues, poor timing, and inattentiveness. But if this is you, you’ve got plenty of company. Good dog trainers aren’t born, they’re developed - like great scientists or artists or business execs, they’ve spent countless hours engrossed in their subject.

If you know what you want from your dog, you’ll get it. Success is as much about attitude as it is about technique, although flaws in either will sully the outcome. Communicating with your dog is so crucial to achieving any training goal that it bears repeating (and repeating). Grossly oversimplified, if you know what you expect from your dog, your dog will know it. No, it’s not a matter of aiming intense mental “vibes” towards your dog, or creating a “happy environment” so he’ll “want to" please you. It’s a matter of knowing what you expect, and being a leader. Dogs discern hierarchy, and if you don’t occupy the top tier, your dog will know and will behave accordingly. When a person tells me they’re not afraid of my dogs but my dogs tell me otherwise, I believe the dogs. Dogs don’t lie. People do, and they can fool themselves into believing their circumlocutions are truth.

My students usually don’t realize they’re deceiving themselves. When Student A comes for a lesson with Zeus, her love for him is obvious. His disrespect for her is even more obvious. He’s seven months old, puffed up with his own high opinion of himself which his adoring family’s doting attention reinforces, and exacerbated by lack of clear boundaries. When he behaves rudely (every two minutes or so) Student A engages in a conversation with him (“Mommy’s gonna hafta get after you, you bold boy you. Why won’t you listen to Mommy?”), which he attends to not at all unless she waves a cookie, at which point he treats her like a vending machine. She thinks she wants an attentive, compliant dog, but her body language and behavior says otherwise; so, Zeus gives her what she asks of him, which is a spoiled child-surrogate.

What we want and what we think we want are often vastly different. We want our dogs to know what they should do when we really haven’t decided for ourselves what a “good dog” acts like.

When Student B's dog Kitty jumped up on me, I asked if she’s allowed; Student B said, “Well, sometimes.” Sometimes doesn’t cut it for dogs. If you allow it, fine. If you don’t, don’t. Not once, not sometimes. Clarity, consistency, correction, praise - the vocabulary of training.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Little Things

I love this photo taken by my daughter, Jess. Like a movie that is appreciated at greater depth with each viewing, I find myself revisiting this depiction of a Bullmastiff studiously sniffing something too small to see in the photo. Very likely the dog is engrossed in a blade of grass bearing a few molecules, but that scent signature conveys an entire story to the dog; she may know that a grouse and her brood fled from this spot in a panic when a red fox sprang upon them last night. She knows the grouse was old, she knows the fox was a malnourished male. She knows this, processes the information, and were it anything relevant to her own interests she would be prepared to act accordingly.

Sometimes we humans seem to spend considerable amounts of energy ignoring the things that are under our own noses. Why? To conform. To avoid confrontation. To make nice. To maintain our own illusions. So, unlike the dog, we are not prepared to act according to our own interests. And then we engage in elaborate personal hoaxes to perpetuate the myth that we are, that we really did, do, want things the way they are. That we're content. We're satisfied. We're happy, dammit!

We're really, really good at charades. Dogs are generally perceived as being guileless. While by comparison to us they may be relatively so, I'm not convinced it's absolutely the case. Yesterday I noted they engage in quite a lot of manipulation. Whether that implies the conscious will required to qualify as guile, I'm not sure.

On the topic of yesterday's blog, someone commented (privately) that when a person owns one or two dogs, they get to know those dogs intimately, while my life with multitudes has enabled me to know the breed. Yes, and no. I agree that with one or two dogs you become incredibly bonded and close. But I'm not sure I'd call that intimacy (with the implication of knowing all the intricacies of their personality) because it's far too easy to contaminate our perception of our beloved companions (human and animal) with what we believe we see. What we want, wish, or need to see. Among other things, having so many dogs has taught me that I never really knew those dogs that I was so in love with back when I had only two or three at a time. Kind of like falling in love with another human being and being swept along by an intensity of feeling for years, only to be startled one day by an action or behavior that leaves us wondering who this stranger is, our adoration of our canine companion blinds one to the truth of the other's Otherness...we're as much or more in love with a projection of a love-object as we are with the real thing. So it is with our in-love-ness with dogs. We become blinded to the bigger picture.

Seeing dogs interact with other dogs as opposed to with people, day in and day out, opened my awareness to the subtleties of their communications. They are less polite, more direct, with each other...or maybe it just seems so because messages are immediately comprehended by other dogs, while a dog has to work harder to get their point across to people. But eventually I came to appreciate their individual motivations, fears, interests, preferences, etc. by observing what they "say" to each other as they form friendships and feuds, partnerships and gangs, as they work out their places in the pack or ascend to pack leadership positions.

With those new insights I began to re-evaluate my understanding of their communications with me. I'm not sure yet what, exactly, that means for my relationship with dogs. I'm still sorting it out. I think that's part of my own interest in doing this blog...I want to know what I've learned, and I have to get it worked out in words. Right now the understanding is more or less gut level, a dog's way of thinking, and I have to work a bit at translating it into English ;-)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Can We Talk?

"I always dreamed of doing what you do." I hear it fairly frequently; someone contacts me about puppies, emails back and forth and maybe comes for a visit. They imagine an idealized world surrounded by warm, cuddly puppies and devoted, noble shepherds. Of course I *am* surrounded by more dogs at any given time than most people would own in a lifetime. Than most people's family, friends, and acquaintances would own in a lifetime! What they don't see is... well, everything else. They don't think of the hours of poop-scooping, exercising, training. They don't imagine having no days off, of working round the clock. They don't think of sleepless nights helping bring pups into the world, or the medical emergencies that arise. They block the thought of the inevitable and reoccurring losses, and don't realize the hard decisions that go with adhering to a high standard for breeding.

But they also can't appreciate what opportunities are inherent in this life. In an earlier blog I referred to the fact that our dogs learn with every interaction, usually without our intent. It's not a one-way street. Most people are blissfully unaware of being manipulated, "trained" if you will, by their dogs. A soft nose nudges their elbow, they pet the dog's head. Intent brown eyes stare forlornly, or a particularly expressive sigh carries across the room, and as if pulled by marionette strings, the owner grabs the leash for a walk.

But what if you understood what was happening and declined to be pushed. What if you pushed back? What if, at all moments of interaction, you were as aware of your dog's thoughts and intent as he is of yours, and you were the one in the driver's seat?

Living with so many dogs has enabled me to occupy that seat by virtue of having learned their language. It's sort of like the total immersion language programs that are offered to college kids, you pack up and move to the country that speaks the language you hope to master, and being surrounded by that culture and that language 24/7, you pick it up faster than reading books or listening to tapes. So it is for me. Days and weeks and years of watching not just one, or even a half dozen, but literally dozens of dogs interact with each other and with me, with strangers and strange situations, has given me a fair degree of fluency in "dog speak."

So when someone asks me "how do I get my dog to____________" I find myself wanting to somehow transmit the entirety of my "dog speak" knowledge so they can read the dog, but equally essential so their messages to the dog will carry the meaning they intend. Most of the time, dogs learn in spite of us rather than because of us, and that's to the dogs' credit...they are better "mind readers" than we are.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Saturday the wind careened in, exultant and sultry as if loosed from the chambers of some secret mistress. The thunderous wrath of her jilted husband that rumbled unexpectedly in the late afternoon finally spooked the wind on to points east. Like grief reaching a crescendo, the rain increased in intensity for the next hour until it settled into gentle, cleansing sheets.

I am often referred to as the Weather Goddess, by those who hike with me, because of my knack for getting us out of the woods (literally) without a drop of rain hitting us. The rains may close in just as the car door shuts, or we may walk all day with visibly threatening storms all around, but somehow we don't generally get wet. Saturday I must have wanted a good soaking. It was Rio's turn to join me, a privilege she quickly had reason to regret, though, being a good dog, she did not take out on me. We had a lovely mile and a half, just enough to get a good cadence going, before the aforementioned thunder cracked the skies wide open. It may have been "smarter" to turn around, but Rio and I felt no ambivalence about going the distance (she was attached to a leash – it’s possible I misinterpret her degree of enthusiasm).

Walking in the rain, in the fall, the sensory experience is transformative. Looking through a window onto such a scene, the words “dreary” or “dismal” or even “depressing” spring to mind. But out in it, it’s enlivening. The moisture commingles the elements into a spicy broth that nourishes the soul. Four miles down a dirt lane, alongside a brook that tumbled crazily, it required a conscious effort to think of adjectives like wet, dry, cold, warm, comfort, misery. And no amount of effort could determine whether any of those applied to me. There was no relative experience, there was only this experience, this moment when I breathed fish.

Fish. Originating in the creek beside me? A pond hidden from view but revealed by a puff of breeze? Or further? Winds had driven this rain from afar, from rivers and ponds and lakes and oceans. From mountain glens and glaciers. From breath, and death. This rain, this drenching exhalate, had been camel, had been albatross, had been earthworm, had been, apparently most recently, fish. And now, it was me.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Instincts and behavior

Someone recently asked me how to get a Rat Terrier to actually "rat", meaning to chase, capture, and kill their namesake rodent. I'm full of opinions...not necessarily based on personal experience with ratting but from working with the hunting instinct of other breeds.

Two, my barn was infested with rats last winter and I very smugly ensconced two of my highest-drive ratties there, thinking "HA! foiled you, rattus Norvegicus!" And for a week or so it did seem to work. I never found any bodies, but the rats themselves had vacated. Not for long, however. The signs were unmistakable...they were back, but had simply moved up to run along rafters and ledges that the dogs couldn't reach. And, very successfully, they still snuck into food bins from above...rats can climb quite well. Dogs can't. Strike one, Canis Domesticus. So for the remainder of the winter, the rats proliferated above a height of around six feet (my huntress Tuuliki can leap that high!), the dogs kept the floor of the barn nicely free of rats until the unfortunate day I accidentally left the door to the loft adjar and the dogs took out their frustrations (I think the rats taunted them from on high) on my chickens. My flock of fourteen roosters was reduced to four that day. The dogs moved back to the house, and I put out poison. Second observation: if you really don't want rats in your barn, don't keep chickens AND consign yourself to the grim necessity of poisons.

So much for personal experience. Now, truly, I think you could easily train ratties to rat. We do it with the, not to catch rats, but to channel their hunting (prey) instincts into goals we have for them; who would think you'd need to teach a dog to bite? But, for schutzhund, that's precisely what we do. We start with youngsters, eight weeks or even younger, and we play with them in structured ways that channel their natural instincts to chase and bite into choreographed behaviors that ultimately end up with the incredible feats you see Police dogs do. Same for ratties...the local terrier people have competitions for "Earth Dogs" and they train their dogs for it...they buy rats, dig artificial "burrows" and teach the dogs to chase and corner the rats. I haven't done it, but I know the basic principle is the same as teaching my shepherds to bite the bad guy...start young, enhance existing instincts, channel the drive towards your goal, reward with a "taste" of the prey; in the shepherds case that's the guy's sleeve, for a rattie it might be, well, some of the trainers I've talked to go through a lot of rats! :))

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Zen musings on October

So it's after 4:00 AM, and as is becoming the norm, I'm just finished with final chores. Yes, final, as in yesterday's. I'm no early bird, but I've lately come to realize that I may as well say I start my day at 3 or 4 and then take a nap - that's what it amounts to, really - before I start my next round. I made a nice big pot of fresh-cooked chicken that delighted my furred friends; their eyes still hold the glow of the kill-frenzy that real meat evokes. Soon they'll be curled up, twitching and whining as they imagine they chased, caught, and killed the chicken that imbues their dreams.

I was told tonight would hold a meteor shower. I gave the sky a good perusal, but saw none; my neck won't tolerate much craning these days. But any excuse to linger was welcome. October has an indescribable element of shadow to it; bright, brisk days that prod my horse to behave unpredictably on rides, a teasing wind that keys the dogs to the edge of insanity at the merest whiff of deer, evenings alive with incipient...something. I'm drawn out, out to the woods, the fields, my legs never seeming to cover enough ground to satisfy that sense of needing to seek out, gather in, roam...I feel it, the horses and dogs feel it. What is the "it" that we feel? Who is the "it" who wonders what "it" is?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Training v guiding v teaching v modeling

or how do we really train our dogs, anyway? Most people forget, or never knew, that every single moment we are in our dog's presence, he is learning. We had better be sure he's learning what we want him to, because lessons learned are hard to un-learn. It's nigh-on to impossible to say to your dog, "Dog, you will forget you just nudged me and got me to drop my steak so you could eat it" because regardless of whatever disapproving epithets you hurl his way, he did, afterall, get to taste something divine.

Even without something as motivating as a steak, dogs are masterful at manipulating situations to their liking. The poodle has me trained to hold the blanket up to allow him underneath when I sit down on the couch. Stano woofs insistently at the door and knows that while he might, once in awhile, get an angry Beth hollering "Be Quiet!" most of the time he can count on me dutifully letting him in or out, as the case may be.

So I call myself a dog trainer?

Yeah, actually, because I don't kid myself about what's happening. I know I'm being cued by my dogs at least as often as they're being cued by me. It's a constant choreography of signals and responses. I am aware of it, and I monitor for those moments when I must negate the dog's wish or steer its behavior. And because the dog is monitoring me for my response to his cues, the signal I reflect back is almost as subtle as simply having a clear visualization of my expectation. Because clarity is, afterall, the path upon which our intentions either glide or stick; reaching our goals or falling short; having a trained dog, or being a trained dog owner :))

Frost on the Watermelon

Doing final chores last night (well, in the wee hours of this morning) the slick, treacherous footing as I made my way across leaf-strewn grass let me know I'd find a hard frost come dawn. No surprise, then, to awake to be-jeweled glittering on my lawn, roof, and garden.

Oh, dear - the garden. I never did pick all the last watermelons. Frozen treats, anyone? Now I have to pull all that dead vegetation so I can roto-till, augmenting the soil with the roosters' and horses' contributions to next year's crops.

After several days of snow, slush, rain, and generally frigid conditions, Sunday evening's tentative breakthrough of sunlight is today's brilliant autumn day. Which means....too many necessities crowding out most of the more desirable options. The grass needs one last (?) going-over, which is always a two-day operation given all the paddocks and pastures. The dogs (all of them) need training and road work. Pasadena actually looks forward to being ridden now, and the opportunities are drawing to a close. And the garden, well, one final push and it can rest for a few months.

Dog show this weekend. First of the year...I had given myself and the dogs a hiatus this year, after finishing two Champions here in the U.S. and five in Germany. Haven't prepped for it...this could be another of those times I "ring train" with a couple of laps around the ring before the judge calls us in! Just the boys this time around...Ieuan, Vauxhall, and Quasar. Wish the youngsters could just watch Vaux do his thing, learn the ropes, and go out there looking like pros. If only!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday - Canceled trail ride equals found time for hiking

Hiking with dogs in the fall, can't beat that. Well, yeah, you can hike with your daughter and the dogs on a challenging climb up to dizzying views of the Delaware Water Gap on a day when the sky bears the moodiness of yesterday's snows and the glory of tomorrow's sun.

Jess's little rat terrier, Anubis, amazes with his gravity-defying vertical leaps up boulders and sheer ascents that proportionately must be equivalent to two-story buildings. Anubis weighs perhaps eight pounds, and wears a fluffy aquamarine sweater (his own hair is probably not even 1/8" long) that makes his athletic prowess all the more incongruous. As my young shepherd, Ieuan, puzzles over the best route through jumbled boulders, and as Jess and I lag further behind both dogs, trying not to twist an ankle, little Anubis's silly appearance fades as the reality of his hardiness becomes undeniable. He's kicking our butts.

Last time we hiked the Water Gap we did the usual AT up, looping over the ridge below Sunfish Pond and back down the green trail as it follows along a carefree creek. Today we took the Taminy Trail, a more challenging climb but not a great distance-- combining it with the blue trail back down to the same creek, plus an exploratory venture on along the ridgeline, I'd guesstimate we did perhaps five miles tops. Several stupendous overlooks gave us opportunity to watch the Delaware River disappear to a silver ribbon below. Ieuan, not an experienced hiker, didn't know how to pace himself, but finally realized that Nubi seemed to know what he was doing and began tailing him. He soon learned to take advantage of the humans' tendency to pull a boxy machine out of a bag and stop to look through it (click, click, aww, that's a great shot!) by flopping down to pant and rest. Always ready for action, he'd pop up the instant the lens cap went back on.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

You never sleep

One final, longing look back over the shoulder towards summer. Huddling by a space heater, I really have to fantasize to remember the warmth of the sun.

It's half-past midnight. Haven't started final kennel chores. Have just succumbed to the insistence of friends that I need a blog. That others need me to blog. Like the world needs another opinionated wretch pouring over the keyboard in search of a niche audience. Not convinced, but taking the plunge.

Guess I just contradicted myself.

What can I offer you? I hope this can evolve into a place for those whose interests in animals borders on the obsessive. For those who don't just want to train their dogs, but want to understand them, to learn to read them as one learns gradually to comprehend a foreign language. There is plenty of written material available if you need the technical side of training, but that's not the focus of this venue. Sure, I'll answer questions of how to get a dog to do something specific, I've always got an opinion. If you've got an issue that's bugging you with your dog, we can discuss it privately if you want a more in-depth analysis and problem-solving plan.

But I'm not limiting things. Topics will be wide-ranging. Photos will be willy-nilly. This is for the dogs, truly!